Coffee’s perks

Coffee

Java delivers so much more than a morning jolt.

​First there was red wine. Then there was chocolate. Now you can add coffee to the list of guilty pleasures you don't need to feel quite so guilty about anymore. Turns out your favorite brew is much more than a tasty vehicle for a caffeine fix. Recent studies are finding that coffee is rich in antioxidants and contains hundreds of pain-relieving and antibacterial compounds. That doesn't mean you can sip with impunity — you know what happens when you have too much. But it's good to know that a cup or so might actually be doing more than getting you going in the morning. Read on for the specifics.

​Sharper focus

Regular coffee makes you a better thinker. Caffeine, often described as the world's most widely consumed mood-altering drug, competes with a calming body chemical called adenosine— and produces the opposite effect. Studies show coffee keeps you focused, particularly when you're doing tedious work. In the sleep-deprived, says Harris Lieberman, PhD, a leading caffeine researcher- with the U.S. Army, caffeine improves scores on a range of cognitive tasks, such as decision making, memory, learning, and attention. Coffee can also boost your mood, probably by making you feel more energetic, Lieberman says.

​Less lag

Vacation can be such a drag when you're suffering from jet lag. Coffee may be an antidote. French researchers recently found that a small group of volunteers who took caffeine pills for 4 days after an eastbound, cross - Atlantic flight felt less sleepy than people who took melatonin supplements (or a placebo). The researchers advise drinking 1 cup of coffee every 2 to 3 hours, beginning at breakfast and stopping 4 to 6 hours before going to bed. (But feeling more alert may have a price: The study's caffeine takers didn't find sleep all that satisfying.)

​Better workouts

Caffeine is added to pain relievers like Excedrin and Anacin for its ability to bring about faster (2U to 30 percent) and greater (30 to 50 percent) headache relief compared with noncaffeinated remedies. And a new study shows caffeine can also help reduce exerciseinduced muscle pain, allowing you to push yourself harder and longer. The reason: its adenosine-blocking action.

​When muscles contract, they gradually produce adenosine, explains study author Rob Motl, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's department of kinesiology. The chemical normally binds to pain receptors in muscles, sensitizing them to pain, but caffeine interrupts that process. For the most relief, you'll need to down a l6-ounce cup of coffee before exercising. Smaller amounts may work, but less noticeably.

​Tougher teeth

A tall latte may keep you out of the dentist's chair. In lab tests, researchers in Italy recently found that coffee's antibacterials slow the growth of Streptococcus mitans, the culprit in tooth decay. Coffee also contains compounds that keep bacteria from sticking to tooth enamel. Studies are under way to see if all this equals fewer cavities.

​No more stones

It's no secret that coffee makes your bladder more active. While that can be bothersome, it can also help reduce the risk of kidney stones, according to the Nurses Health Study. Women who drank the most coffee had the lowest risks. Caffeine increases flow of more diluted urine, which lowers the chance of a kidney stone forming. Prefer decaf? No problem: It was shown to have similar effects.

​Steady hands

New research shows that just 1 cup of coffee a day can halve your risk of Parkinson'.s, a brain disease that causes tremors and affects movement. One in 50 women is likely to get the disease in her lifetime. Caffeine's adenosine-blocking power may protect the brain cells typically lost to Parkinson's, explains Alberto Ascherio, MD, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. (Women on hormone therapy don't seem to benefit, however. Estrogen may dilute the effectiveness of caffeine.)

​Blood-sugar benefits

If a woman downs about 3 cups a day, she can reduce her risk of type 2 diabetes by 20 to 30 percent, recent research has found. Experts suspect that coffee's antioxidants, such as chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid, deserve the credit. Coffee may help promote the delivery of insulin to the tissues. When that happens efficiently, explains Frank Hu, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University, insulin resistance—a major risk factor for diabetes—is less likely.

​Cancer defense

Japanese researchers reported earlier this year that people who drank coffee every day over 10 years were half as likely to get liver cancer as those who didn't drink it at all. And the more you drink, it seems, the lower your risk. It's not clear whether caffeine is responsible. But that hardly matters, right?

​About those beans...
  • Finer grinds free up coffee's antioxidants, putting more in your cup.
  • Darker roasts deliver less caffeine. Tile Longer roasting process breaks down the drug.
  • Espresso has more caffeine and antioxidants than brewed coffee. It's made from the more highly caffeinated robusta beans, instead of arabica beans, and the pressure used to make it extracts more compounds.
  • Paper filters keep out an oil that's been linked to high cholesterol.

Too much of a good thing?

Coffee may be chock-fulL of good-for-you surprises, but it's not a fully harmless pleasure. If you drink coffee every morning, for instance, withdrawal symptoms aren't uncommon when you first wake up. An analysis in Pyschopharmacology pinpointed five of those symptoms, including headache; fatigue or drowsiness; depression and irritability; difficulty concentrating; and, in worst-case scenarios, flulike symptoms. But study author Roland Griffiths, PhD, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says "there's no reason to give up caffeine just because you experience withdrawal, unless it offends your sensibilities."

Maybe you've heard that coffee raises your blood pressure. Does that mean it's bad for your heart? A new study found that people who drank about 2 cups a day had higher Levels of inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein, which has recently been associated with higher risks of cardiovascular trouble. Still, it's not clear that the coffee actually leads to heart disease or even boosts your risks. Just to be safe, experts say, people with high blood pressure may want to cut back.

If you're stressed, you may feel worse after a cup of coffee; it pushes the body to release stress hormones. But most people seem to know when to say when. "We tend to be good at controlling our intakes," says Andy Smith, PhD, a coffee researcher at Cardiff University in England. — LT

By Laurie Tarkan, Health, Timr Inc.